Ryan Kiel's pitching career ended in 2012 when the left-hander was released by the Cincinnati Reds after blowing out his elbow. But paradoxically, his baseball career has just begun.
As chronicled in an MiLB.com article that ran last December, Kiel attended the 2012 Baseball Winter Meetings in the hopes of transitioning from the playing field to the front office. Shortly afterward, the then 25-year-old received an offer to return to the very same place in which he began his playing career: Pulaski, Va., home of the Seattle Mariners' Rookie-level Appalachian League affiliate.
But this time around, it would be as the general manager.
In this, the inaugural 2012-13 edition of the bimonthly offseason column "Minoring in Business," Kiel reflects on the challenges, triumphs and tarp pulls of his first season in the front office.
A whole new ballgame
Kiel was drafted out of Marshall University in 2010 by the Seattle Mariners, who immediately sent him to Pulaski (population 9,086, per the 2010 census) so that he could begin his professional career. He was there for the duration of the short-season Appy League campaign, but this summertime stint was hardly representative of the environment he encountered upon relocating there in early 2013.
"It was a weird transition. I moved there from Florida, where there's hardly any cold weather, and in Pulaski, it was cold right away with 10 inches of snow," he said. "I'm thinking, 'What did I get myself in to?' But I tried to hit the ground running … going out into the community and meeting as many people as I could. A lot of people remembered me from my time playing here, which made the transition easier than it could have been."
In those early months, Kiel focused on meeting with potential sponsors, putting together a promo schedule, and perhaps most importantly, hiring interns so they could handle administrative tasks while he was out in the community. He also worked on initiatives he would have liked to have seen in effect during his playing days.
"I tried to get [an Internet] radio stream going right away, because for most of these guys, it's their first year playing and their family and friends want to be involved," said Kiel, who went on to hire University of Iowa student Cheyne Reiter as media relations coordinator and team broadcaster. "When I was there, they didn't have that opportunity."
Kiel's background also informed his perspective when it came to scheduling community appearances during the season.
Fans camp out on the field in Pulaski during one of Kiel's promotional efforts in 2013.
"You want the players to be involved, but you have to realize how difficult their schedule is -- especially in this league where there are only four off days in the season," he said. "I tried to plan our community outreach at times when I knew they were well rested and where it wouldn't interfere with their sleep schedule and training regimen."
Ups and downs
On the flip side of the equation, Kiel soon realized just how oblivious he and his fellow players had been to the behind-the-scenes work that goes into presenting a professional baseball game.
"Before you work in Minor League Baseball, you have no idea how many things can go wrong," he said, citing mishaps such as malfunctioning dryers, crashed phone lines and disappearing internet connections. And then there's what may just be the biggest challenge of all -- tarp pulls.
Ryan Kiel chats with Pulaski left-hander Eddie Campbell before a game.
"That was a daily nightmare, to say the least," said Kiel of pulling the infield tarp. "It was really tough to find the resources to get the tarp out with a three-man grounds crew and myself. I pulled tarp in college but never as a pro, and that was one aspect where I didn't anticipate how much of a hassle it would be on a day-to-day basis."
But in the true spirit of the Minor Leagues, Kiel found a creative solution to this daily hassle. The team took to Twitter to recruit volunteer tarp pullers, offering free tickets to anyone who showed up at Calfee Park to lend a hand.
"The first time we did it, six or seven people showed up," said Kiel. "During the summer this community really loves coming to the ballpark, so they're going to do whatever they can to make sure that there's a game that night."
For larger-scale initiatives, Kiel often relied on the expertise of industry veterans. He credits Vancouver Canadians president Andy Dunn with encouraging him to institute a Pulaski Mariners Kids Club, which turned out to be one of the most successful new endeavors of the 2013 campaign.
"[Dunn] told me that the Kids Club had to be priority No. 1, and I got lucky in getting McDonald's to sign on as a sponsor," he said. "Close to 100 kids signed up and attendance on Sundays, which were our Kids Club games, was boosted by 35 percent."
Ending on a high note
While Kiel was learning the ins and outs of the front-office life, the team on the field was having a memorable season of its own. The Pulaski Mariners won the Appy League's East Division with a 41-27 record, defeated Bluefield in the semifinal playoff series and then triumphed over Greeneville to win the league championship. The product on the field was the one aspect of the operation that Kiel had no control over, but it nonetheless provided the season's most memorable moment.
Ryan Kiel pitched for Pulaski before winning the league crown as the team's general manager.
"You've definitely got a bit of fan in you at that time," Kiel said of the Mariners' dramatic 6-5 win in the series-clinching game. "I was standing with [Appalachian League president] Lee Landers, and he's giving me the whole rundown, telling me what I need to do if we win. I'm thinking 'Okay, I've got it down. I've got the banner ready, I've got the trophy ready.' But when we won it all, I just stood there screaming. … I turned into a fan, before realizing 'Okay, I've actually got to get to work now.'"
These days, Kiel is still basking in the Appy League title, making appearances with the trophy at events throughout the Bluefield area. He also, finally, has had the chance to reflect upon the year that was.
"This was probably the most rewarding experience of my entire life," he said. "There are a lot of times where it's so stressful that you don't enjoy it, but now I can look back and really appreciate it. I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to be in this industry."
Kiel gets showered in champagne during the Mariners' league championship celebration.